Tokyo 2021 Olympics spotlight struggles of black athletes in white space

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In late June, amid a series of disappointing headlines about black women’s Olympic hopes, Black Twitter and Black Instagram users began debating whether to watch this year’s summer games.

The broader question of whether to prioritize structural racial justice at the expense of black individuals navigating, and possibly dominant and reforming, said structure deserves further investigation.

The headlines that sparked the conversation had similar messages:

“Hammer Thrower Gwen Berry faces Tory backlash after Olympic Trials flag rally”

“Black owned swim cap brand designed for thicker hair types Banned from the Tokyo Olympics

“American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson not named to relay the team, will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics “

“Namibian sprinters banned from the Olympics for “high” testosterone levels “

“Brianna McNeal, Olympic champion in the 100m hurdles, loses the call five-year suspension “

While these calls for protest have diminished somewhat, the larger question of whether to prioritize structural racial justice over black individuals navigating, and possibly dominant and reforming, said structure deserves further investigation.

One question that emerged from the rumors was: what is the best way to hold the international sporting community accountable for the potential financial and social impotence suffered by Berry, Richardson, McNeal, Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi and pretty much n ‘ any black athlete with hair?

Others were quick to argue that any kind of black protest, especially one involving this year’s Black Olympians, would inherently weaken the games-related competitors when they clearly need the support of the black community more than ever.

Gabby Thomas, the 24-year-old runner who qualified for her first Olympics with the second-fastest time ever in the 200 meters (after Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner) agrees with this. In a viral tweet which has since been deleted, Thomas wrote: “It hurts to see so many blacks choosing not to watch the Olympics this year. … There are so many black athletes who put YEARS of hard work into this moment – me included. We want your support.

“I’m afraid some of the anger and disdain is misplaced,” she continued. “The ‘Olympic Games’ and those of the IOC have nothing to do with current events.”

Thomas’ points reflect contradictions that further complicate an already complex debate about black participation in white spaces.

Thomas’ final point seems to refer to the widespread backlash against the anti-doping ruling that shattered the Olympic dreams of 21-year-old magnetic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson. (Richardson tested positive for THC, the chemical in marijuana, which she admitted to smoking to deal with the recent death of her birth mother.)

Another litigation anti-doping decision resulted in a five-year Olympics suspension for McNeal, 29, a hurdles gold medalist ready for her second Olympics. (Her case centered around a 2020 drug test that McNeal claimed she missed while recovering from an abortion.)

It can be difficult to push institutions to change without turning athletes into collateral damage.

Nzingha Prescod, two-time Olympian and racial and social justice advocate on the American Fencing Board, admitted that navigating circumstances like those that led to Richardson’s decisions can be “very difficult” for athletes.

“When your lifestyle is going one way, when the rules are going that way, sometimes it’s hard to coordinate that,” she told me on a recent phone call, adding, “And yes, It’s truly sad.”

But Prescod also said the Richardson and McNeal cases are high-profile examples of a policy that has touched hundreds of equally hopeful athletes. “It would be unfair for them to change the rule for Sha’Carri when, you know, so many other athletes had to lose their shot,” she said.

Richardson was not personally discriminated against, whether or not you thought the general policy was discriminatory. But his case certainly added to the feeling that elite black athletes face an uphill battle.

On the flip side, as award-winning sports journalist and author Howard Bryant told me in an email, it can be difficult to push institutions to change without turning athletes into collateral damage.

This touches on the even trickier complication addressed in Thomas’ first tweet, namely how to protest anti-black discrimination and prejudice in spaces and institutions that nonetheless provide financial and social capital to black individuals.

At the center of this debate is the ideal of the “black athlete,” an individual and – for some – a representative of the black community.

At the center of this debate is the ideal of the “black athlete,” an individual and – for some – a representative of the black community. Under “actor” or “writer” for “athlete,” and you’ll find a similar debate regarding a variety of predominantly white cultural and ceremonial spaces like the Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys. It has even appeared in non-competitive spaces that bring in cultural and financial capital, like TikTok.

The nuances of this ongoing conundrum can be found in an enlightening discussion initiated by the storyteller and creator of several hyphens. Naïma Cochrane. Respondents noted how difficult it can be to balance the good of the collective with the good of the individual. Athletes (and actors, for that matter) may also feel differently given their own conflicts of interest.

This last point raises a critical contradiction between performative virtue (albeit well intentioned) online signaling and direct effective action. In a separate but similar example, I publicly spoke about the systemic issues of anti-black racism in the media and in private (in these panel discussions – if you know, you know) called on black journalists to boycott the publications. predominantly white until these problems are adequately resolved.

And yet, I haven’t hiked it yet as I say – because I understand where the reach and resources lie that allow my own reporting and writing on black communities, no matter how unfair that reality is.

Working and protesting within the system is easier on the part of my brain that is strategizing for my future. But it also weighs on my integrity, my values ​​and my hopes for black liberation. (For anyone else struggling with this tension, I highly recommend reading Zakiya Dalila Harris’ new novel, “The Other Black Girl.”)

“It’s sad that people want to boycott because of, you know, structural and structural things that need to change,” Prescod told me during our conversation. “Things have to change, but… I just don’t think the answer is boycott. “

So what should black athletes do? I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that real change requires deliberate organization, individual concessions and discomfort, and unwavering solidarity among black people.



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